An open letter to white people

I worked a bit late on Friday. I’d ducked out early a couple of times earlier in the week, and I needed to make the time up, so it was almost seven by the time I got on the train. They started hooting as soon as I got on the train, four or five black teenage boys, all about 15 or 16 years old. They started shouting things like “Cracker alert!” and “Uh-oh, white people on the train! Behave!” I ignored them and remained focused on my phone, ignoring people on the train being what my phone and headphones are for.

I sat down, and they clustered around me, shouting and trying to get in my face, demanding to know if I was looking at porn, calling me “cracker” and “fat fuck,” yelling that my ancestors had enslaved their ancestors. I continued to ignore them, and two stops later changed trains, as I always do. They also went from the red line platform to the green/yellow line platform, like I did, and then they were gone.

It was frightening. Triggering, actually; being surrounded and targeted by teen bullies is not an experience I expected to have again at 34. It was deeply hurtful and upsetting. It was also the only time in my life I’ve ever felt like I might be in danger because I’m white, and the first time in decades I felt targeted because of my ethnicity. (Previous times were because I’m Jewish, not because I’m white.)

And if I were a self-centered child who doesn’t understand the difference between anecdote and data, between incident and systemic problem, I might well use meaningless terms like “reverse racism” or “anti-white racism” to describe this incident.

But here’s the thing. I’m 34 years old, 31 of those years in the U.S., and that was the first time in my entire life I was targeted for being white. I can virtually guarantee you that there are no 34-year-old black people who grew up in the U.S. and were never targeted for their race. In fact, I can virtually guarantee you that anyone who is 34 years old, grew up in the U.S., and has never been targeted for their race? Is white.

And yeah, they’re wrong that my ancestors owned slaves. My ancestors were too busy living in Eastern European ghettos and being targeted by pogroms. But that doesn’t mean I don’t benefit from the legacy of slavery. Every white person in the U.S. does, whether they want to or not, because the entire system is tilted.

I’m not saying that surrounding and screaming at white commuters is justified. But the anger behind that act? The anger is completely justified. There is very, very good reason for black people, as a group, to be angry at white people, as a group. The reverse is not true. That’s why “reverse racism” isn’t a thing; racism is unjustified anger at an entire group of people. (Or hatred, or indifference. But they’re all related, and the same arguments hold.) But all white people, without exception, benefit from the legacy of slavery. (Though, obviously, in different degrees.) Doesn’t matter that none of us were there, that none of us had a choice about benefiting from it, or that our society is so stacked against so many people in so many different ways that for most of us that benefit wasn’t remotely enough to get by on. We still benefited, and it is therefore on us to acknowledge that and fix it. And, therefore, anger against us, for failing to use our power to fix the systemic biases that benefit us, often to refuse to acknowledge even that those biases exist? That anger is entirely justified.

That doesn’t mean the behavior of those teenagers was okay. It wasn’t. In that train car, they were five tall, fit teenagers picking on a lone, short, fat man. They were teenage boys trying to show off for each other, prove their dominance and shore up their fragile masculinity by trying to bully someone who, in that specific moment, was weaker than them, and who could serve as a synecdoche for the culture that tries constantly to make them feel weak and inferior.

But it wasn’t racism, and incidents like it aren’t evidence that racism against whites exists or is a problem in the U.S. Quite the opposite; their rarity is proof of how strong the cultural bias is in our favor. And, in turn, how obligatory it is for us to acknowledge the problem and work to fix it.

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